Amazon.com Inc.’s (AMZN) smart assistant Alexa can be used to order pizza, check on weather forecasts, make video calls, and as an automated voice agent at call centers. Providing financial services may be on that list in the foreseeable future.
According to reports, wealth management firm UBS group has partnered with Amazon to enable the machine to answer current and important economic queries. For example, it can assess the impact of a Fed rate increase on the U.S. economy. Typically, UBS clients call up the firm or look up answers on the web for answers to such questions. Alexa simplifies the process.
To be sure, this is not the first time that Alexa has waded into financial services territory. Fidelity Investments released an Alexa skill last year that enabled its clients to check their account balances on the device. Similarly, insurance company Liberty Mutual provides insurance information and quote estimates for auto insurance through the smart assistant. Customers for Capital One can perform a variety of actions using Alexa; they can check account balances, find out when bills are due, and pay bills through Amazon’s virtual assistant.
A recent WSJ report states that UBS is also investigating the possibility of making its Alexa skill “secure, compliant, and trustable for clients.” In other words, the firm wants to make Alexa’s skills compliant with existing regulation. Some of that is already happening. The SEC released guidelines for robo-advisors earlier this year. Those guidelines are fairly similar to the ones already present for human investment advisors as part of the fiduciary rule. For example, the SEC asked developers of such solutions to consider levels of disclosure. For example, changes to Alexa’s algorithmic code should be communicated to customers. The agency also asked robo-advisors to consider different types and formats of information gathering techniques to ascertain a customer’s risk level. (See also: Robo Advisors Call For Updated SEC Regulations)
Advances in regulation are coupled with market trends. The use of algorithms and machine learnings solutions is on the rise. Last year’s best performing hedge fund was Renaissance Technologies, a firm best known for using quantitative strategies and algorithms to manage its portfolio. Tabb Group, a research and consulting firm, estimates that 27% of all stock trades by U.S. investors are conducted by quantitative hedge funds. Pure as well as hybrid robo-advisors are also expected to play a substantial role in future trading markets. (See also: Top 5 Robo Advisors In 2017)
Even as financial regulation and markets catch up with smart assistants, the road ahead for such devices in the financial services industry is still unclear. The WSJ article points out a couple of problems with envisioning Alexa as a financial adviser. For one, customers may not be comfortable sharing private financial information with robots due to security and privacy reasons. While hackers have not penetrated Alexa’s defenses yet, online hacking incidents at banks and financial institutions have increased in recent years.
Then there is the human interaction element. Most customers of wealth management firms prefer to deal with humans while discussing the nuances of their fluctuating financial situation. For example, there might be periods when spending goes up (during a wedding or celebrations) or declines significantly (during periods of saving). But devices like Alexa are targeted at a different customer. The WSJ piece quotes the chief executive of Wealthfront Inc., a wealth management firm that uses algorithms extensively, as saying that their services are targeted at “digital natives” who are not interested in talking to human advisers.